LIBYAN rebels have forced government troops from three western towns and broken the siege on another, a rebel commander said as NATO pounded 10 targets across the country.

Friday’s heavy bombing and rebel victories, plus the first publicised diplomatic contact between China and the rebel leadership, reflect the continued erosion of Muammar Gaddafi’s power since the eruption in mid-February of uprisings to end his 42-year rule.

Local fighters won control of four towns in the western Nafusa mountain range, where government forces have besieged and randomly shelled rebel-held areas for months, a rebel military leader said on Friday.

After weeks of siege, government forces drove about seven tanks and a number of armoured vehicles into Yifran in early May and surrounded its near neighbour Galaa, Colonel Jumaa Ibrahim of the region’s rebel military council said via Skype.

Fighters who had fled then used their knowledge of area to chip away at the government forces, he said.

“They started with hit-and-run attacks,” he said. “They know all the hills and valleys, so they were able to trick the brigades and destroy some of their vehicles.”

On Friday, the fighters entered the town to find that the last government forces had fled the day before.

Rebel fighters also pushed government fighters from Shakshuk and Qasr al-Haj, two villages near a key road that runs along the mountain range’s northern edge, Ibrahim said. The latter holds an important power station for local towns.

Ibrahim said rebel forces took the towns on Thursday, then moved north to clash with Gaddafi forces in the village of Bir Ayyad on Friday. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

The small rebel force in the western mountains is unlikely to threaten Gaddafi’s hold on Tripoli, 70 kilometres to the northwest, but the victories could bring relief to local residents by opening up roads between their communities. The western mountain population is tiny compared to the large rebel-held territories in east Libya.

Also on Friday, at least 10 NATO airstrikes hit the capital and elsewhere in Libya. It was not immediately clear if there were casualties.

Four early morning blasts shook central Tripoli, targeting a barracks near the sprawling compound where Gaddafi sometimes lives, said a government official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.
Six earlier strikes targeted a police station and a military base outside the capital, the official said.

A NATO spokeswoman, speaking by phone from Naples, said the alliance hit a storage facility for military vehicles in Gaddafi’s compound. In a statement, NATO said it also targeted surface-to-air missile launchers and armoured personnel carriers near Tripoli, as well as other targets elsewhere.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Friday that China’s ambassador to Qatar recently met with the head of Libya’s rebel council, the first known meeting between the two sides. China abstained in the UN Security Council vote authorising NATO military action in Libya.

The conflict in Libya is nearly four months along, but the situation on the ground appears mostly stalemated.

NATO airstrikes have kept the outgunned rebels from being overrun, but the rebels have been unable to mount an effective offensive against Gaddafi’s better equipped armed forces.

Gaddafi’s regime has been slowly crumbling from within. A significant number of army officers and several cabinet ministers have defected, and most have expressed support for the opposition, but Gaddafi’s hold on power shows little sign of loosening.

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